Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW
Imagine a world in which Columbine High School alumni have no memory of April 20, 1999, because it was just an ordinary day. In which moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, emerged from seeing The Dark Knight on July 20, 2012, with their only haunting image being Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. Imagine that the devastation and subsequent terror from hurricane Katrina did not affect generations to come in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the pleasant wistfulness of these three scenarios can exist only in our imaginations. The terrifying truths are now an ugly part of American history. Affected families, friends and communities mourn the victims of the natural disaster in Louisiana, the shootings in Columbine and Aurora, and too many other events to name. As for the survivors, they have been forced to deal not only with feelings of intense grief, but also, for many, deep trauma.
Terrifying events feel all too common. Just turn on the TV and you are bombarded with horrific stories of traumatic loss and violence. But what makes an event traumatic? And why do some children become traumatized, while others are more resilient? Children, like adults, often deal with extremely stressful situations. What sets trauma apart is how the child reacts and the subsequent psychobiological impact on behavior, emotional regulation, and brain functioning. A trauma is often sudden, shocking and unexpected; one’s perceived sense of safety and/or life is threatened. A perceived sense of intense fear or horror is often present. To a child, the world is no longer a good and safe place. Examples can include one-time events, such as natural disasters, a severe car accident, crime victimization, or sexual assault. Ongoing situations can also create trauma. These can include exposure to domestic violence, food scarcity, parental addictions or mental illness, abuse or neglect, medical hospitalization or procedure, bullying, or ongoing community violence.
Research validates what therapists have known for a very long time: children exposed to trauma are, in many ways, forever changed. Now scientific research works to explain the effects on the brain and body that have lasting effects and put one at risk for heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, learning problems, and relationship issues. Everyone has a built-in “survival switch” in his or her brain that is turned on when feeling threatened in some way. The classic example is the caveman who gets a surge of adrenaline, which helps him get to safety when chased by a predator. The stress hormone Cortisol is released and the fight, flight or freeze response is activated, which helps the caveman get to the safety of his cave. Small amounts of this neural hormone is helpful in dangerous situations – but bathing in high levels of Cortisol for long periods of time is detrimental and results in malfunction of the on/off survival switch. The emotional regulation ‘thermostat’ struggles to adjust and gets stuck in overdrive. The brain finds it hard to differentiate true emergencies from everyday reminders of the traumatic situation, so the survival switch is easily triggered. Flashbacks, nightmares, smells, pictures, situations and sounds can elicit the same fight, flight, or freeze response.
Not all children who experience terrifying events will experience traumatic reactions. Despite the negative impact on the brain, healthy supports, coping skills, and validation of the trauma can reduce the negative impact of the event and shorten trauma-related symptoms. Symptoms of trauma, such as sleep disturbance, acting out, frustration intolerance, depression, excessive anxiety, flashbacks, memory and concentration impairments, hyper-vigilance and poor emotional regulation, can be resolved. Research has come a long way and can now verify how the brain circuitry can be reversed to the way it was prior to the traumatic event, with the right treatment. Current treatment protocols are evidenced-based and are proven to be successful at helping kids learn how to self-regulate their emotions, trust people again, and gain the coping skills needed to fully process the unresolved trauma.
Being trauma informed can help you know what signs and symptoms to watch for that would indicate a need for counseling. Keep in mind, you do not need to be a trained therapist to help a trauma-exposed child. You can help by promoting a strong sense of safety and a positive environment. Know that, as a parent, teacher or friend, the best thing to do is just to listen and be supportive of whatever the child wants to disclose and to remain as nonjudgmental and non-reactive as possible.
Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years of experience in the mental health field. She has worked in both public and private counseling settings, helping kids & adults of all ages, families, and couples attain peace within themselves and their relationships. Angela has success in resolving issues related to ADHD, mood, anxiety, relationship conflicts, trauma, pain and behavior problems. She uses a compassionate approach, empowering clients to empower themselves.